St. Peter’s Basilica: Facts you should know before visiting

No doubt that everything about the history of St. Peter’s Basilica is simply outstanding! Let’s start by saying that the very heart of the smallest country in the world, the Vatican City, is actually the biggest church in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica. It measures 187 meters in length (approximately 614 feet), which is three times a football stadium! As a point of comparison, just think that Notre Dame de Paris in Paris measures 130 meters in length (426 feet), Westminster Cathedral in London 110 meters in length (360 feet) and New York St. Patrick Cathedral is 120 meter long (394 feet)
Every day between 40,000 and 50,000 people cross the beautiful entrance doors of the church, amounting to 10 million visitors per year. Those same doors were crossed by illustrious figures such as popes, emperors, poets and artists. When you walk down the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica you are literally walking on history that dates back to 2,000 years ago!

Credits: image by @kirkandmimi
Opening Hours: Wintertime 9.00 am 6.30 pm / Summertime 9.00 am 7.00 pm
Concert: if scheduled commences at: 8.30 pm
Location: Piazza San Pietro, 00120 Vatican City Area
Tickets: Needed only for the Dome. For details visit St. Peter’s Basilica Tickets & Hours
Accessibility: Partially Accessible

Location of St. Peter’s Basilica

As mentioned St. Peter’s Basilica is located within the territory of the Vatican City. We have already covered the location of the Vatican State and its relationship with Rome in our introduction to the Vatican City Area in Rome. So if you are interested in learning more, just follow the link!

The stunning Basilica, the birthplace of Christianity, overlooks the St. Peter Square, surrounded and embraced by gigantic columns, Bernini’s work, that have been standing up and tall for centuries.

Credits: image by @josepons28

The “Atrio”: the Entrance of St. Peter’s

Beyond the columns stands the “Atrio”, the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica.

From this very point you can already start feeling the grandiosity of the church. Friezes, sculptures, colored marbles grace the beautiful entrance that features the famous 5 doors of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Holy Doors, ceremoniously opened during Jubilee years.

Take your time to stop and admire for a while the main entrance door of St. Peter’s Basilica, called “Porta del Filarete”. The bronze doors are named after the artist Filarete and date back to 1433 and 1445, well before the discovery of America by Columbus!

The doors show Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Apostles Peter and Paul, and also Eugenio IV, the Pope who commissioned the work to Filarete.

Holy Doors of St. Peter’s open during Jubilee Years / Credits: image by @Roma_Wonder

Inside St. Peter’s Basilica

Once inside St Peter’s, the gaze is lost amid incredible wonders of art and priceless masterpieces.

You should think about St. Peter’s is like a library where stories are told by statues, altars, columns, and mosaics. Spontaneously you will glance upwards.

However, looking at the floor you will see, just next to the main entrance, a Red Porfid Disk, called “Rota Porfiletica”, which origin goes back to the Old St. Peter’s Basilica, also known as Constantine Basilica. Many emperors until 1452 kneeled down on this very spot in front of the Popes to be crowned.

Red Porfid Disk also known as “Rota Porfiletica” / Credits: image by @Roma_Wonder

One of the greatest magic of St. Peter’s Basilica are the optical effects. Things may look normal from far away, but the truth is that everything is huge.

The statues of the putti angels on the left of the main nave may look pretty regular, but they are 2 meters in height. Try to get closer and see for yourself!

Statues of Putti Angels in St. Peter’s / Credits: image by @Kgorz

The Altar and Bernini’s Canopy

The very heart of St. Peter’s Basilica is the altar, dominated by an impressive construction, the famous Baldachin or canopy designed and built by Bernini between 1623 and 1634.

As everything inside the Basilica, the altar is impressive. Bernini worked on almost every corner of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Baldachin is for sure one of his greatest works.
The four columns are 20 metres or 66 feet high and the whole structure measures 30 meters or 98 feet, basically as a 10 floor building!
The canopy is made of bronze, some of which was extracted from the Pantheon.

Bernini’s Canopy above St. Peter’s Tomb / Credits: image by @neufal54

St. Peter’s Tomb

Under Bernini’s Baldachin, a few steps down, stands the most sacred place in the church, the tomb of St. Peter Apostle. This place goes back to Roman times and to an ancient Necropoli that extended well beyond the church up to the ancient Via Triumphalis. Pictures of the tomb are not allowed!

Today, the Vatican Necropoli Under St. Peter’s Basilica is open to small group of visitors through a suggestive itinerary provided by the Excavations Office of St. Peter.

Whoever is interested can read about the Vatican Necropolis in this post and learn how to join the visit. As for the Necropolis of Via Triumphalis, the archaeological site is also accessible to visitors through the office of the Vatican Museums.

Visit our post Vatican Necropolis Info & Hours for information, and opening hours.

Michelangelo’s Pietà

Probably the most stunning masterpiece of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pietà by Michelangelo simply enchants visitors.

Michelangelo’s “Pietà” / Credits: image by @cello5

Michelangelo was just 23 years old when he sculpted the image of the Virgin Mary holding in her arms Jesus Christ.

He was not famous yet and to make sure everybody knew it was his own work he engraved his name on the statue. The work revealed the talent of Michelangelo, his attention to details and to the anatomy of the bodies. Note that the face of Mary is younger than the one of her son, Jesus. Michelangelo stated that Mary shows no sign of ageing because she was without sins.

The Origins: The Old St. Peter’s Basilica

The area where today rises St. Peter’s Basilica was once occupied by the Circus of Emperor Caligula (Roman emperor from AD 37–41), also known as Circus of Nero.

Under Nero’s rule the circus lost its originally function and was turned into a creepy stage for christians executions. The area slowly became a place of burial.

Among the martyrs there was St. Peter, who according to tradition was killed and crucified upside down as depicted in Canova’s painting “The Crucifixion of St. Peter”, housed inside the Cerasi Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo.

Canova’s Crucifixion of St Peter house in “Cerasi Chapel”
in Santa Maria del Popolo / Credits: image by @RonPorter

The remains of St. Peter were simply buried in the bare ground next to a red wall in this necropolis. Over the centuries pilgrims kept visiting this sacred place, the same spot where Constantine decided to build the old St. Peter’s Basilica, also known as Constantine’s Basilica in the Vatican.

We know how the Old St. Peter’s Basilica looked like from some drawings left by Tiberio Alfarano. The church featured a wide open portico, known as Portico of Paradise. On both sides of the central nave there were 2 lines of columns that measure 10 meters in height. At the end of the nave there was the altar, built on the St. Peter’s tomb.

You can get an idea of the aspect of the old basilica also from one of Raphael’s fresco “The Fire in the Borgo” in the so-called Raphael’s Rooms in the Vatican Museums. Constantine’s basilica lasted for over 1200 years!

Raphael’s Fresco “Fire of Borgo” (Vatican Museums). On the back you can spot the facade of the Old St. Peter’s Basilica / Credits: image by @RomaWonder

Who built St. Peter’s Basilica?

We know what everybody is wondering about: “Who built St. Peter’s Basilica?”. We are getting there don’t worry!

The Basilica we all know today is the result of the creative, artistic genius of Michelangelo Buonarroti and the architectural skills of Giacomo della Porta.

In 1506 Pope Julius II asked Bramante to provide him with a project for a new St. Peter’s Basilica, since it was severely damaged. Bramante’s project was really different from the final result we can admire today. It featured a dome and two bell towers. When Bramante died the works had barely started, but the old st. peter’s basilica was completely demolished.

Next, it was the time of Raphael who presented his own project. However, Raphael died too and his design was never carried out.

When Michelangelo started working at St. Peter’s he was already 70 years old. He knew he had little time to complete the work and had a brilliant intuition: instead of working on the structure of an expensive church, he focused on finding a recognisable symbol for the Catholic Church: the Dome!

St. Peter’s Dome

Michelangelo’s stroke of genius resulted in a masterpiece and a symbol for the Roman Church, a sort of logo we may say today.

The artist draw inspiration from the Pantheon’s Dome and from the Dome of the Duomo of Florence, built by Brunelleschi.

Starting from Brunelleschi’s project, Michelangelo designed a dome within the dome. The inner dome is the load-bearing structure and is surrounded by another dome, made of plumb, to protect the structure from temperature changes.

Michelangelo died in 1564 and never saw the Dome completed. However, he left his project in the hands of Giacomo della Porta who was able to complete the works in only 2 years.

Unsure of the shape Michelangelo designed for the Dome, Giacomo decided to make some changes and make it taller and slandered. Later, Domenico Fontana added the golden bronze sphere with the cross.

St.Peter’s Dome / Credits: image by @AnnaKlein

The Dome in Numbers

The Dome weights 14.000 tons
The outer height (counting from the street level to the top of the cross) is nearly 135 meters (443 feet)
The outer diameter is 49 meters (161 feet)
There are 537 steps to reach the dome. For info visit “St. Peter’s Tickets & Hours”

Today at night you can clearly spot the dome of St. Peter’s illuminated by the light of the city and by its own lights. However in the past, St. Peter’s Dome used to be lighten up by candles during special occasions and ceremonies.

St. Peter’s Facade

The monumental facade was made by Carlo Moderno between 1607 and 1614 and is fronted by a wide staircase designed by Bernini and sided by colossal statues of the Saints Peter and Paul.
A series of columns support the cornice on which you can read the name of Pope Paulus V.

The inscription, which is 1 meter high, reads: “Paul V Borghese, Roman, Pontiff, in the year 1612, the seventh of his pontificate, [erected] in honour of the Prince of Apostles”.

At the bottom stands the main portico with two arcades and nine balconies. The central balcony is also known as The Lodge of Blessings is the biggest and also the most famous one. You’ve all seen at leat once the Pope delivering his “urbi et orbi” blessing. The announcement of a new pope also occurs from this famous balcony. On the top you can spot 13 travertine statues of Christ the Redeemer.

This article ends here! Now get ready to visit St. Peter’s Basilica firsthand!